ILLEGAL–A Human Trafficking Thriller
A down-and-out L.A. lawyer with nothing to lose…
A beautiful Mexican woman who disappears crossing the border…
And the powerful and corrupt rancher who would destroy them both.
This riveting thriller finds a cynical lawyer doing battle with cops, coyotes, and a vicious rancher as he takes on the dangerous world of human trafficking.
Haunted by a tragedy in his past and wanted by the cops for his latest illegal shenanigans, down-on-his-luck lawyer Jimmy (Royal) Payne is skipping town when he encounters Tino Perez, a gutsy 12-year-old boy newly arrived from Mexico with no money and no papers. After robbing Payne, the boy then pleads for his help in finding his mother, Marisol, who disappeared during a border crossing with a vicious coyote who preys on women caught up in human trafficking.
Will Jimmy Payne’s life end in a shallow grave?
With Tino in tow, Payne traces Marisol’s steps from Mexicali to California’s notorious Hellhole Canyon – meeting some nasty characters along the way. Will Payne’s search for answers redeem his mistakes and resurrect his dead marriage – or will he end up buried in a shallow grave? He soon realizes that there’s no escaping his past in this violent and gripping thriller that’s set against the backdrop of wider social issues including the brutal worlds of sex slavery and human trafficking.
Read an Excerpt
Judge Rollins drew a handgun from beneath his black robes, pointed the snub-nosed barrel at Jimmy Payne’s chest and said, “Who you pimping for, you low-life shyster?”
Payne gaped at the revolver.
This cannot be happening.
The judge gestured toward the stacks of hundred dollar bills on his desk. “C’mon, Payne. You’re not smart enough to dream this up on your own.”
They faced each other in the judge’s chambers, a tranquil place of leather-bound books and walnut wainscoting. Payne felt his knees wobble. “I swear, Judge. I just represent the defendant. Ramon Carollo.”
“Not like you to defend human traffickers. I remember the hell you raised when those wetbacks got barbecued in a trailer truck.”
“I like to call them ‘undocumented aliens.’”
“Why? They from Mars?”
The judge vaulted out of his high-backed chair. Quick for a big man. Silver hair swept straight back, like feathers on a snow goose. Shoulders as wide as a bookcase.
“Take off your clothes.”
“You heard me.”
“I swear I’m not wearing a wire. You can pat me down.”
Payne wasn’t sure he could. His joints seemed rusted shut.
With jerky motions, Payne kicked off his shoes, unhooked his belt, and dropped his trousers.
“You bring me nine stacks of hundred dollar bills, fifty to a stack.” Judge Rollins motioned toward the open briefcase on his desk and did the math in his head. “Forty-five thousand dollars.”
“That’s the offer,” Payne agreed.
“Odd amount. Like it was supposed to be fifty thousand, but some half-assed bagman skimmed five off the top.”
“No, Sir.” Payne lowered his tie slipped out of his shirt. “Forty-five is all I’ve got to spend.”
“No sale, shitbird.”
“I thought it was worth a shot, Your Honor. But let’s just forget the whole thing. I’ll put my pants on and--”
“Drop those undershorts, too.” The judge waved the gun like a king with a scepter.
Payne pulled down his red and white boxers with the Los Angeles Clippers’ logo. He preferred them to the Lakers’ purple and gold shorts, not for the colors, but because he favored underdogs.
“Now, turn around and spread your cheeks.”
“No way, Judge.”
At 37, Payne was in good shape. Flat stomach, decent chest, a sinewy runner’s body. He spun around and bent over. “Like I said, Your Honor, no wire.”
Judge Rollins gazed off. “I don’t know whether to shoot you or arrest you.”
Jimmy straightened up and turned around. “Just let me go, Judge. There’s a lot of good I can do out there.”
“Out where? You’re Jimmy Payne. Royal Payne. You cut corners. You represent undesirables. You piss people off.”
“Honestly, Judge. I’m gonna change my life.”
“People don’t change, Payne. They just get old and die. Sometimes, they don’t even get old.”
Jimmy stepped sideways toward a set of shelves decorated with framed vanity photos. Judge Rollins with Mayor Villaraigosa, Senator Boxer, some local bigwigs, and a pretty young woman in a pink sash, the Rose Bowl queen, maybe. Alongside the photos, the scales of justice. Bronze. Heavy. Tilted heavily to one side. One more step and Payne could grab the scales by the blindfolded lady and take swing at the judge.
“Freeze, sleazebag.” Rollins pulled back the hammer of the .38. With the click echoing in his brain, Payne thought of his son, Adam. Ten years old. Loved baseball. Cheeseburgers. Surfing. A boy needs his father.
Just how the hell did I get into this?
One hour before he stood, naked and terrified, in the chambers of the Honorable Walter Rollins, Jimmy Payne stood, clothed and angry, glaring at a wooden pin some sixty feet away.
Payne hated the five-pin nearly as much as he hated Cullen Quinn, his ex-wife’s fiancé. And there the damn thing stood – the pin, not Quinn – smack in the middle of the lane, taunting him. For most bowlers, the five was the easiest spare, but for Payne, the ten-pin – that loner at the right edge of the lane – was the gimmee. The trick, he knew, was not being afraid of dropping into the gutter.
Payne’s second ball whooshed past the five and thwomped harmlessly into the pit, leaving the pin standing. Giving him the finger.
Damn. Even Barack Obama could have made that spare.
So could Payne’s son. He thought about taking Adam bowling this weekend. His eleventh birthday was coming up, and the boy already threw a decent little hook.
Payne checked the counter behind the ball rack. The stranger was still there, watching him. He had shown up around the third frame, sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup. Blue shirt, striped tie thickly knotted, cheap tan suit that needed pressing. Hair that might have been blond once, now turned the yellowish brown of a nicotine stain. A gum chewer with jaw muscles dancing, a face of angles and planes, a cold stare. A cop? Homicide, maybe.
Not a problem. Payne hadn’t killed anyone. He hadn’t even represented a murderer in a couple years. Bar brawlers, check bouncers, hookers from the Sepulveda Corridor. He could use a good murder trial right now. Or a personal injury case with fractures to weight-bearing bones. Even a nasty divorce would do. Lacking any decent cases, bowling alone on a weekday morning provided a break from bill collectors and anger management classes.
Payne hoisted his Hammer Road Hawg from the ball return and settled into his stance. Sensing movement, he glanced over his shoulder. Wrinkled Suit was headed his way. Payne considered challenging the guy to three games at 10 bucks a pin.
“Morning, J. Atticus Payne.”
Keeping the ball at hip level, Payne turned to face the man. “Jimmy. Jimmy Payne.”
“Your Bar card says ‘J. Atticus.’”
“My parents were hoping I’d grow up to be Gregory Peck.”
“Nah. They named you ‘James Andrew.’ You changed it. Not legally, of course. Just made it up and put it on your driver’s license, which also says you’re six feet tall when you’re really five-eleven. You make up a lot of shit.”
Grinning now, gotcha. Like he was Sherlock Fucking Holmes.
“Some people think Atticus fits,” Payne said, thinking of his ex-wife Sharon.
“What slimeball you gonna walk today, Atticus?”
That was before she started calling him “the respondent.” When Sharon divorced him, her bill of particulars included his reputation for sleazy behavior.
“Respondent has engaged in a pattern of professional activity that is a source of embarrassment to Petitioner, a police officer.”
If he’d been different, Payne wondered, if he’d made more money and been more respectable, if he’d lunched at the California Club instead of Hooters, would Sharon still be his wife?
Nah, that wasn’t the issue.
“You weren’t here for me when I needed you, Jimmy.”
“Why do you lie so much?” Wrinkled Suit asked.
Payne shrugged. “I’m a lawyer.”
“You rolled a baby split in the third frame. The three-ten. Very make-able. But you hit the reset, erased the score, and bowled again.”
“That a crime?”
“What kind of guy cheats when he’s bowling alone?”
“Maybe a guy who wants a second chance.”
“To do what? Tell a client to flee the jurisdiction?”
“Who the hell are you?”
The man reached into his jacket pocket and flipped open a vinyl wallet with an L.A.P.D. badge and photo I.D.
Payne read aloud. “‘Detective Eugene Rigney. Public Integrity Unit.’ Kinda wussy, isn’t it? I mean, compared to Robbery Homicide. Or SWAT.”
He turned toward the pins and took his four-step approach. A high back swing, a wrist-snapping release, a fluid follow through. The ball skidded on the oil, dug in, and hooked hard left into the pocket. A big mix, the clatter of rolling logs. The skinny neck of the six-pin kissed the ten, pushing it over like a wobbly drunk.
Strike! Take that, Mr. Public Integrity.
Rigney didn’t look impressed. “You gotta do something for me, Payne.”
“Bribe a judge.” The cop looked at his watch. “And you’ve got one hour to do it.”
Reviews For ILLEGAL–A Human Trafficking Thriller
"Levine is a brilliant stylist as well as storyteller. Illegal is the most original, offbeat and wholly entertaining thriller of the year so far. It's one of those rare thrillers that reaches every level it strives for and hits a bull's-eye with every staccato phrase Levine fires off. Timely, tumultuous, and in a word, terrific." - Providence (RI) Journal
"Levine is one of the few thriller authors who can craft a plot filled with suspense while still making the readers smile at the characters' antics." - Chicago Sun-Times
"Illegal is a riveting read, filled with action, pathos, and even humor. The portrait of the dangers and predations that Latinos face crossing the border is chilling and rings with authenticity. But the book's best quality is the way Levine invests his characters with believable humanity. A compulsively readable yet character-driven thriller." - Booklist
"Human trafficking, sexual slavery, illegal immigrants move Illegal’s plot, which is as thought-provoking as it is action packed. [Levine] doesn't shy from depicting the ruthlessness of human smuggling. Illegal is proof that Levine is always stretching his writing skills in new and exciting directions." - South Florida Sun-Sentinel
"Levine deserves kudos for bringing the wrenching, often gruesome details of today's immigration stories to life while drawing readers into this fast-paced and witty novel. For those familiar with immigration policy and law, Illegal will resonate with the stories behind the headlines. For those new to the issue, the book will be a rapid plunge into one of today's most fractious, complex and heartrending problems. Good for Levine that in the midst of this heavy drama, his complex characters pull us into their lives and keep us turning the pages." - Los Angeles Daily Journal
"Illegal has such a strong page-turning narrative that Levine’s detailed reporting on immigration never gets in the way of the suspense and the black comedy." - Connecticut Post
"The scenes and stories relating the abuses heaped upon the illegal immigrants are some of the most disturbing you are likely to read. Levine promises more from Jimmy Payne. And that’s good news, especially if he continues to tackle weighty and relevant issues." - Bookgasm.com
"The seamy side of smuggling human cargo is deftly exposed by the clear and concise writing of the Edgar Award nominated author. Levine should be commended for bringing the plight of the illegally detained victims into a forum which is both entertaining and insightful. Illegal is highly recommended." - Midwest Book Review
"Entertaining. Payne has a broad enough backstory and personal charm to head up a series on his own." - Publishers Weekly
"Illegal could have been a simple adventure story, but Levine has given it a greater depth as he brilliantly captures the plight of illegal immigrants." - bookpleasures.com
"Highly recommended." - This Writing Life
"The combination of real-world situations, nail-biting suspense and a new character in the Levine mythos make Illegal a title for your must-read list." - Bookreporter.com
"Levine’s action packed tale opens our eyes to the struggles for personal freedom. Tino has all the makings of becoming a literary star." - Suspense Magazine
"A world of entertainment...an intriguing plot and a cast of colorful characters that make this a very enjoyable read." - Booksellersworld.com (Nancy Eaton)
"Exciting and fast moving...Get it! You won't be sorry." - Mainly Mysteries Book Reviews
"A fascinating thriller." - ErrantDreams.com
"Once the road trip begins, Levine drives the plot full tilt, like an eighteen-wheeler that's just blown the brakeline on a downhill run. I couldn't put the novel down, and I'm betting that any reader who picks it up won't be able to either." - BlogCritics.com, Mel Odom
"This novel is fun, adventurous and poignant all in one. Not since I read T. C. Boyle's Tortilla Curtain have I absorbed a novel that covers the plight of illegal immigrants viewed from both sides of the issue. Great book that you will not be able to put down once reading." - Gather.com, Gil Wilson
"The characters are strong and memorable...and in the case of one of the nastiest of the lot, interestingly complex. I should also not be surprised to see Illegal as a film. It manages to capture some of those elements of grandeur, anger, and dogged individualism that have long been the heart and soul of drama set in the American west and bring them into a thoroughly contemporary context." - Reviewing the Evidence.com, Yvonne Klein
"Illegal is a great start to a new series and I can't wait to see what trouble Jimmy Payne gets himself into next. 4 stars." - Shhh, I'm Reading.com
"Taking on the hot political potato of immigration gives a new twist to a tautly written thriller. I couldn't put it down." - BookBitch.com, Stacy Alesi